Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drawing School Boundaries: Clarity vs. Chaos

November 11, 2009, 7:40 a.m.

Bumps on the Road to Boundaries
(brought to you by*)

This morning's blog entry is a commentary about the School Board's most recent efforts at rethinking its elementary school attendance boundaries, at its meeting last evening, November 10.
But first, here are links to earlier entries on this topic and some of the other hot topics from the past week or so that are now getting the most direct hits, among which may be the entries you are looking for:

School boundaries, school boards, and the ICCSD. "School Board Election: Now Work Begins; It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper; Old Board 'Starting Off Backing Up' With Consultant and Tough Decisions," September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with its links to 11 prior and related blog entries including, for example, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," and "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?")

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Has Work to Do," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009 (and reproduced in blog)

"Boundaries: Only Board Can Do Board's Job; Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy," November 2, 2009

UIHC, Regents and UI.
Executives trip to Disney World: "Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009

"Contributions from patients" proposal: "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with numerous updates through November 4, links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories)

Board of Regents and State universities' budget cutting: "Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009, 8:30 a.m. (with links to prior, related blog entries)

Spence break-in grand jury proceedings: "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009
Sunday, November 8, the School Board held a work session at which they navigated one or two bumps in the road to a school boundaries policy. Rob Daniel, "Board lays out redistricting expectations; Schools should have similar numbers of low-income students," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 9, 2009 ("It was eventually determined that the boundary committee should aim for schools to have a poverty level of no more than 20 percent higher than the district average, which currently stands at about 28 percent."); Holly Hines, "School Board outlines boundary plans," Daily Iowan, November 9, 2009.

Last evening [Nov. 10] it finalized its "criteria." Rob Daniel, "School Board finalizes criteria for boundaries," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 11, 2009, p. A1:

"the boundary committee will develop two to three scenarios while keeping in mind demographics, finances, keeping neighborhood schools and neighborhoods intact and projected enrollments and building uses. The demographics consideration also includes drawing boundaries in such a way that no school would be more than 20 percentage points higher than the district poverty average, which is currently about 28 percent, the board said. . . . Board member Mike Cooper said . . . 'The more flexibility, the better. I'm sure the committee will take all four of these (criteria) to heart.'"

And see, Holly Hines, "School Board Approves Redistricting Goals," The Daily Iowan, November 11, 2009, p. A2; Gregg Hennigan, "I.C. School Board Settles on Boundary Priorities," The Gazette, November 11, 2009, p. A2.

As always, there's good news and bad news.

The best good news is that this school district is blessed with the leadership of Lane Plugge. It's reminiscent of the line used in a number of songs, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." If it weren't for Lane the Board would have no leadership at all.

His is a perfect personality for the task before us -- and I say "us" because how this boundary business comes out will affect everyone for a few miles around, whether they happen to have children in the ICCSD schools or not. It is a rare superintendent who can work with the likes of me, on the one hand, trying to bring some clear articulation to Board governance and goals, and on the other, keep his calm, and make sure things don't fall too far off the track in the midst of the Board's present chaos, confusion and deliberately structured ambiguity.

He knows what a school board should do -- legally, managerially, financially, and in shaping policy and goals. He knows a superintendent should not be doing the Board's job. But he also has the patience and ability to work with, and around, the hand of cards the voters dealt him.

Having watched the Board's discussion of boundaries last evening, I've kind of reversed my position. As awful as the result may be, for reasons I'll explain in a moment, given the Board's lack of either the will or ability to do its job, the utilization of a consultant and a committee may have been a brilliant stroke on Lane's part. It gives the Board the opportunity it seems to want to be able to avoid responsibility for the ultimate decisions, provides them the assistance they seem to need to do anything at all -- while at the same time avoiding the otherwise awkward, but only available, alternative of having the superintendent to do their job for them.

So Lane's the best news.

Another bit of good news, for which Lane is also responsible, is the creation in advance of a schedule of meetings of the committee, public forums, and the presentation of its ultimate report.

Finally, there is the use of at least one metric in the midst of this sea of ambiguity. The disparity of the percentage of FRL students in elementary schools is to be kept between a 48 percent maximum (the 28% District average, plus 20%) and a minimum that is not specified. (Even if the minimum is also subject to the 20% variation, that would mean schools could have anything from 8% to 48% -- a 6-to-1 ratio.) That would not have been my choice, but I have never argued this is about my choice -- only that the Board arrive at, and announce, its choice, which it has now done and for which congratulations and appreciation are in order.

On this one the Board may actually be reflecting the plurality of community opinion -- though how would anyone know what that is? -- that a 6-to-1 disparity is just fine, especially if the parents in question can continue to send their kids to a school with the low percentage (and the ones who can't are free to transfer out to another school).

I should make unambiguously plain at the outset that I believe the seven Board members, as individuals, are obviously committed to public service, and otherwise worthy of our thanks. The problem comes with what happens to groups, as illustrated by this poster:

The mere fact that each is an outstanding individual -- knowledgeable, caring and bright -- does not mean that when they come together and act as a board that the results will resemble anything done by people who are caring, informed and bright. You may have seen this poster about "Meetings," with the caption: "None of us is as dumb as all of us." [Credit: Despair, Inc.] One of our nation's major gurus of governance, John Carver, puts it this way in defining boards: "boards are incompetent groups of competent individuals." Or you may have heard the definition of a camel, as "a horse built by a committee."

As for the Board's current chaos and ambiguity, I'm reminded of a story. Concerned about their community's lack of progress, a poll was commissioned to ask the question, "Which do you think is the worst problem in our community, ignorance or apathy?" The majority response came back, "I don't know, and I don't care."

Is there a point at which, notwithstanding "elections," so few people care to vote that it is only nostalgic nonsense to refer to a community as a "democracy"? I think the School District may be at that point when 10% or less of eligible voters even bother to vote for their School Board members. Or perhaps it is the case that the population really does follow and understand in great detail the Board's approach to this boundary business, and is so affirmatively in accord with its approach that it sees no need to question what the Board is doing. Whichever it may be, my sense is that mine is a lonely voice in the wilderness on these issues, and that the Board may very well be reflecting its constituents' desires.

Nonetheless, I'm going to continue to share my own view of the matter for whatever inherent persuasiveness it may present to any who care.

I most recently wrote about these issues in Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Has Work to Do," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009 (and reproduced in blog). On that occasion I noted, among other things:

"[It] is the board's, and only the board's, legal, managerial, economic and political responsibility . . . [to] go beyond the vague 'prioritizing its top criteria' . . .. Telling a committee of 30 that it should keep in mind the board's 'priority of demographic considerations' is equivalent to Congress telling the FCC to regulate broadcasting 'in the public interest.' . . .

[T]he board . . . should start by calculating the percentage of "free-and-reduced-lunch" students in the District-wide student population. [It's now done so; the answer is 28 percent.]

It could then say, to state the extremes, that it wants:

• To specify precise percentages to maximize the FRL disparity, within the limits of the law: Some elementaries with a disproportionately high percentage of FRL students, and others disproportionately low (like now). [Of the three options I offered, this seems to be the one it has selected: no minimum FRL percentages specified, a 48 percent maximum (20% over 28%) -- producing conceivably as much as an 8-to-1 disparity from school to school (e.g., 6% vs. 48%).] . . .

Abdicating leadership

But for the board to delegate its responsibility for boundaries to a committee of unelected citizens in the form of a multiple-variable set of criteria with no algorithm, made up of vague categories with no metrics, is an abdication of its responsibility, a kicking the can down the road, a recipe for chaos and frustration, and an unconscionable imposition on the time, energy, good will and financial resources of 30 dedicated local citizens and the public at large. . . .

New data, physical impracticability, political or economic pressures may well call for some rational modifications occasionally.

But at any given point in time, everyone simply must have specific numbers to work with -- numbers not from the administration, a consultant or committees, but from the board.

Having done its job it is then possible, if the board desires, to delegate the task of creating specific, alternative line-drawing possibilities to the superintendent, a consultant or a committee -- but not before."
At that point in time I was only focusing on the ambiguity in the Board's use of language.

Having now watched the deliberations last evening [Nov. 10] I am even more concerned about the chaos involving the structure and process of its decision making.

It has taken what could be a rather unique clean structure and process -- the Iowa Code provides that the Board has the power, and the Board makes the decisions -- and turned it into the ambiguous chaos that prevails elsewhere in government.

o Consider Washington and health care. How's that been working for us? There are 435 folks in the House, almost half of whom have vowed to "break" the President by voting against anything he's for. Now that it's finally come up with a 1000-2000-page bill with something for everyone (at least some of which has nothing to do with health care) it goes to the Senate, where it has been declared to be "dead on arrival" and will require, for reasons best known to the Senate, 60 of 100 votes to pass rather than 50. If there's anything left in it for the American people after it comes out of the Senate, if it ever does, it must go to a "conference committee" for further watering down. Finally, if the President can hold his nose long enough to sign it, it will become law.

o There are similar problems within the Regents' university system. The UI faculty has some power, as do the college deans, president and other administrators -- although, as in Animal Farm, when it comes to the hospital and athletics "some are more equal than others." Nor is that the end of it, for the Regents have a kind of ultimate authority under the Iowa Code, as does the Legislature (or, more particularly, those legislators in the leadership and on the relevant committees).
Elected officials in Washington and Des Moines (at least those who would really like to get things done on the people's behalf) must envy school board members. As with any elected official, Board members have some responsibility to their constituents, and a significant number of stakeholder groups. But the legal authority stops with them; they need report to no one -- not the city council, not the legislature; only the courts can reign them in, and then only if they violate some federal or state law.

Given this rather uniquely clean bit of authority, what has our Board done? It has taken the smoothly working beauty of an Iowa City decision making machine and tried (and succeeded, alas) to turn it into something as chaotic and dysfunctional as the governance systems of Washington for health care and Des Moines for universities. Why would anyone want to do that?

It has, with a skill at ambiguity seldom if ever equaled, dispersed its power in all directions. There are the seven individual Board members. There is the Board acting (as it should) as a Board. There is the Superintendent. There is now a consultant. There are 30 (with promises of more) individuals on a committee. There is the committee acting as a committee (either unanimously, or with widely splintered views). Then there are two of the Board members (Mike Cooper and Tuyet Dorau) who will also hold the title of "ex officio" members of the committee (a wholly inappropriate role for individual Board members); and some imprecise role that will be played out by the consultant, Superintendent, and other District administrators at the committee meetings. All have some -- and often conflicting -- authority for this process and its ultimate decision; for none has that authority (and its limits) been defined.

Like "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," in addition to creating "criteria" that provide no direction (with the exception of the 20% metric), the Board has now also deliberately created this blob of undefined roles and interwoven quasi-legal loci of power and will have to live with it.

As I listened to the exchange among Board members last evening my concerns were only heightened. Someone sought clarification on "what the consultant has told us we must do." Someone else commented that the 20% metric might be modified in some cases if one of the other "criteria" conflicted. There was some confusion about what "ex officio" would mean.

To end on a more positive note, here's a suggestion that I've written about before.

I believe in "the ratchet principle." You know, like a jack you put under a car. You start with something and then try to improve it. Writers may use it as an alternative to what some have described as the process of looking at a keyboard and waiting for little drops of blood to fall off of your forehead onto the keys.

Let's start with a map -- not one of the "two or three scenarios" the Board is delegating as an assignment to its committee; not as anything anyone thinks the Board would ever end up with. But as a place to start.

Nor need it be a multi-thousand-dollar precise map. Surely the administration can make pretty accurate estimates of many of these numbers.

1. Building occupancy.
(a) Do with building occupancy what the Board has done with FRL. What is the total elementary school population for the District?
(b) What is the maximum occupancy of each elementary (not counting "temporaries"), and what is that District total?
(c) If students were assigned such that every elementary had the identical percentage of its maximum occupancy, what would that percentage occupancy be?
(d) If every elementary student was assigned to the school closest to him or her, working outward from each school in all directions until that occupancy percentage is reached for each school, where would those boundary lines be drawn?

2. Free and reduced lunch.
(a) Do the same exercise using only that nearly one-third (28%) of the elementary students who are FRL.
(b) What is 28% of the student population of each elementary (using the optimum/average occupancy calculated above)?
(c) If every FRL student was assigned to the school closest to him or her, working outward from each school in all directions until its 28% is reached, where would those boundary lines be drawn?
(d) Do the same exercise as in 2 (a)-(c), above, forgetting about the percentages in each school; assign each FRL student to the closest elementary. What percentages of FRL would that produce in each school? You then have the data (with the visual of a map) to decide the most cost-effective way of reallocating FRL students to meet the 48% maximum.

Having done these, and similar, exercises there are some maps on the wall. All can, literally and figuratively, "see" what this is all about. Those involved, whether Board or committee, can then meaningfully talk about the modifications they want in the metrics that produced those visuals. They can "ratchet up" to ever increasing detailed modifications of those maps.

Ideally, as I've suggested before, there is no reason why these kind of "what if" games could not be played with software plus data made available by the District to the administration, Board, committee and any member of the public (presumably online). All kinds of maps could then be drawn by anyone with the time and inclination to do so. I can't believe the software isn't easily available, possibly even for free. (But no, I'm not going to volunteer to take the time to find it.)

Failing that, however, as least some early, fixed maps of the range of what various formulas would mean geographically would be a cheap, and very useful, compromise.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

No comments: